I have decided to start blogging again. My mind is sharper when I blog, and I’m more in tune with my reading and interpretation/criticisms of the world when I do. I’m not going to put myself on a schedule, but perhaps some former readers will find some new stuff, and hopefully some new friends will enjoy it as well.

“Apologia” is a Greek word that implies a “defense of something.” The most famous Apology is probably Socrates’ Apology from the 4th century BCE, and it became an entire genre of literature in the early Christian period, as folks like Justin Martyr wrote sophisticated defenses of the new Christian faith to the well-to-do and well-placed members of Roman society in the first few centuries CE. Socrates’ Apology was more or less his answer to “Why are you doing what you are doing,” asked of him by Athenian accusers who believe that he was somehow corrupting the youth of the city and encouraging them to some other religion other than the one handed down to them with the blessing of those who believed themselves to be the guardians of the legitimate, official, and imperially-sanctioned religion.

I have, in recent months, felt like Socrates must have felt in 399 BCE in Athens. I am having to defend myself as a Christian and as a Religious Studies scholar who studies not only early Christian history, but ancient, early rabbinic, and medieval Jewish history and early Islam as well. Now, granted, this comes mostly from a particular quarter of Christianity, but there it is. Typically, the accusation, such as it is, runs something like this: “How can you, a Christian, justify teaching about other religions?” And there are corollary questions: “You’re a Christian, so I don’t understand how you can support anything the Democratic Party does or wants to do;” “I don’t see how you can be a Christian and even entertain the idea that natural history is anything other than what the Bible says.” And so on.

The second two questions I’ve written about on this blog in the past, and I don’t have much new to add, although if this new blog series goes anywhere I’m sure they’ll come up again. But I haven’t written much on the first and much more important question. I have been asked this often enough, and fumbled and bumbled through various answers to it. In this run of blog entries, I want to try to articulate why, and how, I teach Judaism and Islam and other world religious traditions alongside Christianity, and do so with a good conscience.

A project like this, though, is dangerous. As my friend the Ultrarev says, “whenever you blog, it’s not a good thing; more heresy.” He’s right, if heresy be defined as a deviation from status quo religion. But this isn’t heresy for the sake of being heretical, an academic exercise, an argument for tolerance of other viewpoints. My “heresy” stems from my recognition that so much of what we think is authentic Christianity has, in fact, little to nothing to do with the religion of Jesus of Nazareth, from whom our faith traces its origins. It also stems from my recognition that Jesus did not, in fact, give us Christianity as a “finished product,” and that Christians have domesticated, misunderstood, and mis-taught both the message of Jesus and who he was. Put in more blunt terms, our modern Christianity may have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. I study the history of religions because I am convinced that if indeed we Christians have misunderstood both the Gospel and Jesus to the extent that we no longer truly know what it is, the Gospel – and Jesus – need to be recovered.

If you’re still reading, you may be thinking “Ok, I’ll grant you that, but what does this have to do with OTHER religions? Like Judaism and Islam, or those Asian religions that have all those gods?” Fair question. But my answer is this: a religion, any religion, is a cultural system, or cultural artifact that derives from the common lot of human experience. This includes Christianity, especially in its modern versions of evangelicalism and liberalism in the US. When other religions offer answers to questions and issues that are relevant and pertinent to our own existential situation now, some elements of the world’s religious traditions may point us as Christians to additional paths to truth, to “true religion” via avenues that our own tradition does not include. Take, for example, the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, “actionless action,” the notion that the best, most appropriate, most truthful action may be to take no action, at all, or to say nothing at all. Christianity is a very wordy religion, and a very “active” tradition. But our monastic tradition, too little appreciated, understood (as did the author of the book of James, and, I am convinced, as did Jesus himself) that sometimes we can accomplish more in the name of what is right, true, and good by doing and saying nothing at all.

None of this is to suggest that all religions are the same; far from it, and I will get into this in due course, inshallah. My point here is merely that Christianity as we know and experience and practice it today has much that it can learn from the world’s religious traditions. In this series of blog entries, I will be exploring these lessons and examining ways in which the Christian tradition can learn from Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, and so on, and yet remain the religion of the Gospel of Jesus.

Join me for the ride. En garde, heretic!

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